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I came away from the second annual Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit with mixed feelings. I mean, it's hard not to support the group that pays Linus Torvalds to spend his time continuing to lead the poster-boy project for free and open source software. But at the same time, those golden chains are my biggest concern about the Linux Foundation.
IBM sponsored the event, and they are the biggest supporter of Linux in the corporate world. The foundation membership is made up of almost all the large and and many of wanna-be-large IT firms around the globe -- including Adobe, which is one of the foundation's newest members. You can find a complete list of members on the foundation website.
There is no doubt that the time and money the corporate world has spent -- and keeps spending -- to support Linux development has been beneficial to Linux, and therefore to all of us who use the platform. When world-class IT gurus like Torvalds are freed from the demands of a day job not directly related to kernel issues, it's a good thing for all of us. Likewise work on projects like the LSB, which can smooth a few rough edges keeping some from adoption. But still, I worry about the price.
As pointed out in Robin Miller's video interview with Linux Foundation Executive Director Jim Zemlin, the Linux Foundation at present is focused on a core group of large, sophisticated Linux users, not on the needs of individual users and developers or the thousands of small-to-medium-sized companies using or developing software for Linux. Zemlin also notes that the great thing about open source is that anyone who wants to can start their own organization or foundation, and suggests that if the Linux Foundation is not right for some, they should do just that. While Zemlin's comments helped to clarify the Linux Foundation's immediate goals and practices, it didn't really quiet my discomfort.
Before I learned that the press was not welcome in any of the working-meetings at the summit on days 2 and 3, I saw and heard rumblings of discontent from more than one ordinary Linux desktop user. One example: a top-ten list of inhibitors to Linux adoption, created by a committee of foundation members, contained nothing at all relating to desktop usage. Nothing. Everything on the list was about back-room usage. Servers. Big iron.
Wi-fi drivers were mentioned in passing, but not addressed as an action item. Jittery notebook keyboards/track pad/sundry rodents weren't mentioned at all. Those two items are certainly on my top-ten list of inhibitors to adoption, but not on theirs.
It's only natural that the people who are paying developers hard cash and paying kernel folks' travel and documentation and system administration costs want to have a say in what those kernel folk and application developers are focusing on. This is the way things are supposed to work. The problem is, or may become, that the close relationship between core Linux developers and large IT firms may overshadow the wants and needs of those who want Linux to become the best desktop platform, not just the best server platform.
With the current makeup of the Linux Foundation membership, that may never happen. The money people are concerned about money. IBM won't make more money if Linux does well on the desktop, but they will if it does better on big iron. HP and Dell make so much money from selling Windows on desktops that they have precious little motivation to work harder to see Linux grow in that space. That's fine, too.
That is, that's fine unless the wants and desires of IBM, HP, Dell -- substitute any other members names for any of those three, I use them out of familiarity, not to pick on them -- so totally dominate the time and the efforts of free software developers that Linux never gets to the next level as a desktop platform. Money talks. And when Linux Foundation money says do this, and this means backroom stuff, then the desktop will continue to get short shrift.
Now, there are firms interested in seeing Linux do well on the desktop. But by and large they are the smaller firms among the foundation's membership. They are trying to make a go with small, cheap laptops or eye-pleasing desktop distributions. And they don't bring the same money to the table that the big boys do.
What's the answer to this dilemma? I don't know. But I do worry over it. So does Paul Elliott, a longtime member and officer of the Austin Linux Users Group. He read about the summit in the local paper, and tried to attend. Unfortunately, he showed up on the second day and attempted to register as a journalist, when the press was no longer welcome in the talks and workshops. He blogged about his unhappiness with the experience on the LUG's website.
It doesn't make good business sense to have reporters sniffing around business meetings. I won't argue with that. To a corporation, information needs to be sanitized, not free. PR handlers need to be present when management speaks to the press. This is life in the corporate world. I don't have a problem with that, except when that same lack of transparency begins to enter the FOSS world, as it seems to have done at this Linux event. It doesn't belong here. It's not part of our culture, or our community. I worry about what we're giving up for the corporate dole.
I hope that the Linux Foundation's plans to broaden the membership base and to address the concerns of individual developers and users, as mentioned in the Zemlin interview, come to fruition, and that as they do they prove my worries to unfounded and unnecessary.